The novel begins as Offred remembers her time at the Red Center where Handmaids are trained and conditioned which is situated in an old school. Offred comes back to the present and informs the readers of her new job working for the Commander and his wife Serena Joy.
Handmaids are allowed no freedom except for two walks a day in which Offred is assigned to another handmaid Ofglen to go grocery shopping. Since the women aren’t allowed to read a single word, even the signs for the grocery shops are pictures rather than words.
When she returns, Offred shifts back to the past as she lays on her bed and thinks of her friend Moira who she later found at the Red Center before she planned her second escape by turning the parts of toilet mechanisms into a weapon. Offred also introduces the readers further into her background with her mother who was a feminist activist and often went on marches for abortion and against pornography.
Offred pushes the story forward with her narratives of the past as she remembers the moment her husband Luke and her daughter were taken away from her. As Offred opens her cupboard doors she finds an engraving that reads “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which was apparently written by the previous Handmaid. Offred later finds out after liaising with The Commander that the quote is a rebellious phrase that translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Offred shifts to another point in the past as she describes her checkup at the doctors office who offered to have intercourse with her in order to get her pregnant because the Commander is most likely sterile. What happens to Handmaids who do not bear a child after their third assignment is that they get banished to the Colonies where all the people who are unfit to join society suffer. The people who are banished to the Colonies are Unwomen (lesbians, infertile, spinsters, old women).
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Jezebels are another class that are not integrated with society but they serve as sex-workers and entertainers and undergo an infertility procedure. That being said, Jezebels are not free from scrutiny either as they are under the strict power of the Aunts who are the most powerful women in Gilead. When Jezebels are too old they are also banished to the Colonies. We come to know that Moira did not escape that far and ended up working as a Jezebel.
After bathing and doing her usual recollection of her past life with her daughter and husband, Offred is called along with other members of the household to listen to the Commander read verses from the Bible. Offred then partakes in the ceremony where she must be fully clothed apart from her undergarments and lay between Serena Joy’s legs and engages in a cold and emotionless intercourse with The Commander.
After that, Offred longs for rebellion so she sneaks out to steal a daffodil but runs into Nick who is classed as the Guardian for their estate for security purposes. Nick and Offred touch before he tells her that the Commander wishes to see her privately the next day.
That day, Offred attends the process of giving birth of a fellow handmaid named Janine. Janine has to go through labor without any medical intervention or anesthetic. The handmaid gives birth also between the Wife’s legs and the child is swiftly taken away from her and into the Wife’s hands. We later come to know that Janine engaged in intercourse with the doctor in order to save her own life, but ended giving birth to a “Shredder” which is a disabled baby.
When Offred meets with him The Commander plays scrabble with her and even gives her books to read and enjoys her company and only asks for an innocent kiss. Months pass and Offred continues to meet with the Commander and the Ceremony becomes more awkward to the point where he almost touches her face at one point during intercourse. Meanwhile, Offred and Ofglen’s relationship starts to improve and Ofglen tells her of the Resistance and asks her to find out more about the Gilead government from the Commander.
Offred introduces the readers to the catastrophic events that lead to Gilead. The President and the Congress were assassinated and the blame was placed on Islamic Extremists and so by shutting down the country in the way they did with the justification of protection, such an authoritative regime was implemented. She goes on to remember how armed men that weren’t from the U.S army forced her employer to fire her and all other women from the job.
All female workers were fired, all pornographic stores were closed down and then all the funds that belonged to women were transferred to a male in the family. Meanwhile her husband didn’t seem so sympathetic with her loss of power and so she became a housewife up until her escape with her family and their attempt to make it to the boarders before they were captured.
Offred does not know where Luke is or her daughter and she later finds out that her mother was banished to the Colonies for being a feminist and a prime target and that Moira became a prostitute as a Jezebel.
As The Commander’s candor begins to increase with Offred, he tells her of the previous handmaid who hung herself. After that, although Serena Joy and all other Wives and even Marthas (house maids) usually despise Handmaids, Serena was unusually nice to Offred and arranged for her to engage in intercourse with Nick in order to save her.
Offred and Ofglen then attend a Prayvaganza which is the ceremony of arranged marriages. When Offred returns, Serena shows her a picture of her daughter in a white dress. The same night when Offred’s arrangement with Nick was meant to take place, The Commander gives Offred makeup and a sequenced dress and takes her to Jezebel’s where she is showcased by the Commander in front of other members of the elite that were present. She then sees Moira and she explains what happened to her, that would also be the last time she would see her.
After that Commander takes Offred to a hotel in which he demands sensual intercourse from Offred. After she returns she sneaks out to engage in intercourse with Nick. Offred continues to see Nick and is distracted from her plans for helping the resistance.
Another day, Offred and Ofglen go to a Woman’s Salvaging where three women are hung and executed. Another form of execution arises but this time it is a Particicution where all the women participate in the execution. The Particicution is of a supposed rapist who we later find out from Ofglen was actually a member of resistance. Ofglen kicks the man in the head so he passes out and feels little pain.
The next day, Offred and Ofglen are meant to go on their daily walk but instead Ofglen is replaced. The new Ofglen tells Offred that the previous one committed suicide when the Eyes where coming to get her. The Eyes are a secret government military that watch over Gilead and capture potential rebels.
Offred’s narrative ends when she returns home and is confronted by Serena Joy who says she will punish her and calls her a slut after she had that found the cape that Offred covered herself with that night was covered in makeup. Offred contemplates suicide but before she could act on it, the Eyes van approaches. They knock on the door and Offred is scared, but before she goes into the van, Nick tells her that it is the resistance that have come to help her.
As the novel comes to a close, we are sent to the future in a lecture for Gileadean studies. The lecturer professor Professor Pieixoto states that they found Offred’s story on cassette tapes in Maine and they have a reason to believe that the van that came actually was for the Resistance.
Other than that, they do not know of Offred’s fate and only speculate that they have found who the real Commander was through extensive historical research. It seems that Offred’s story is one that the future receivers do not sympathize with. That situation mimics that of current historical lectures which speak of horrors that no one can relate to or take too seriously.